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The Hostile Stars

VII. Examination

Commander Raini Luzammi groaned once again in pain. Her throat, though, emitted only a little croaking noise. Her head felt as if it were being squeezed by a vice. There was horrid throbbing sensation behind her eyeballs. At some level below consciousness, like the buzzing of an angry mob, was an insistent, probing, need, a need to know, to find out-and rising up to meet it was her own need to confess, to reveal, to break down.

She tried to stay calm and remember the training she had been given at the Academy. Slow down your breathing and heart rate. Blank your mind and think of nothing, forgetting conscious thought. Clenching her eyes shut, she thought of the symbols and mantras she had learned to help blank her mind: whorled, angled geometric forms, abstract monosyllables divorced from meaning, all to help bury her knowledge, her very emotions beyond the probing of an alien mind...

Sudden, sharp pain jarred her back into full consciousness. Her eyes flew open, but for a moment all remained black. A Thought came into her mind, a thought that was not her own:

It will be much easier if you cooperate with us.

"No!" she seemed to scream. Dimly, her ears registered a low murmur-was that her voice?

We regret the necessity of physical pain. What you felt was merely induced into the neurons of your hand-there was no actual damage.

But if you persist in resisting us, we will have to resort to ... cruder methods.

Raini Luzammi had spent three years in medical college before transferring to the Academy Flight School. Too much empathy with the patients. Her mind could easily conjure up images of what modern surgical techniques could do to a human body. It might even be possible to take her apart, piece by piece, and then put her back together, all while she was awake-

Her vision swum. Darkness crowded in over her mind.

Plieznabr sighed. The Imperial had blacked out. Even her subconscious mind was not responding. He turned to the Mission Commander and queried him-

Here we must resort to crude translation. Plieznabr had been using telepathy since early childhood, when the tests given to him in school revealed an innate psionic ability that lifted him out of the placid lives of his Prole parents and started him down the path of service to the nobility. Communication between telepaths uses surprisingly few words, and then usually only for mathematical or scientific concepts. So much more information can be exchanged by emotional states, images, shared memories-but such an experience cannot be translated easily into words, especially to those who lack the telepathic ability. Still, there are parallels and analogs. So let us say that Plieznabr turned to his master, and thought, with exasperation: "She is unconscious. Shall I revive her?"

Tlienjpraviashav paused to scan Luzammi's mind before answering. "No," he responded silently. "She teeters on the brink of exhaustion. We risk driving her mad if we press too hard. Let her rest for now." The barest ghost of a smile crossed his face, though within, his emotional state shielded from Plieznabr, he felt pride for the young Intendent. His probing of the Imperial ship's first officer had been efficient and aggressive - he remembered his own days as a young officer in the Thought Police, in awe of the powers of the psionic arts and eager to push them to their furthest extent...

He sensed frustration and disappointment in his protege. "Patience," he thought at him. "She will soon yield."

"I wish I shared your optimism." Anger roiled across the landscape of the Intendent's mind. "I had not believed an unshielded mind could hold out so long!" 

"They are surprising, aren't they? Poor, lonely beings. They spend their lives trying to forge connections with words and bodies, but their inner states are inaccessible to each other. Expose them to the merest touch of a telepathic link, and many go mad, driven to senselessness by thoughts not their own. But many are stubborn. They would rather stay out in the dark than come inside our circle of light. So they fight us." 

"Why should they resist so fiercely?" 

"For Freedom!" 

Shock and amusement swept through their link. "Freedom? Surely not that, not from them!" 

"Yes, my child, I am afraid so." Affection emanated from Tlienjpraviashav and surrounded the younger man. "The freedom of a barbarian, a wild animal perhaps; but an animal who is trapped can be very dangerous. These Imperial officers are well trained and conditioned." 

"So I see." 

Tlienjpraviashav once again closed his mind to his student. Plieznabr was considering Luzammi with a new respect, he sensed. He had not mentioned the other reasons for the Intendent's surprise at the resistance the Imperials were showing to his mind probes. The boy was used to the docile Proles of the Consulate, the classes of society who lacked any psionic training or potential. The Proles were accustomed to telepathic interference, to being reconditioned by the Thought Police whenever aberrant behavior made them unhappy. They were not proper preparation for the devious minds of the Imperials and their allies. 

Well, there would be time for politics later. The boy had enormous promise; it would not be long before he would be elevated to the nobility as a reward for his good service. Better that he find these facts out for himself in the meantime. 

The smile-ghost returned to his face. They had captured a Vargr in the Engineering section. If the boy thought an Imperial officer's mind was stubborn, what would he do with the chaotic, barely-evolved mind of the canine? 

Tlienjpraviashav turned to one of the officers gathered in the sickbay compartment they were interrogating prisoners in. "You said we had captured the quarters of the Imperial fleet's Marine commander," he said, using spoken words. The officer was not a noble, and had no telepathic skills. 

"Yes, nobly born." 

"Take me to them." 

He paced silently through the corridors of the dead starship, his honor guard surrounding him. Rhylanor would be a great prize; it would be wasteful to have to abandon it. But they could not seem to get the computer to work. His experts said that the systems to make the ship live again were stored somewhere in the computer's network of nodes and memory banks; but they needed the codes to unlock them. And so far none of the prisoners had revealed them. 

Perhaps his technicians would succeed in implanting their own systems. If not, he would abandon the ship, reluctantly, and let the suicidal few who still resisted perish as the battle cruiser burned up in Jasmine's atmosphere. 

Such a waste, though! 

The officer stopped in front of an iris hatch. Tlienjpraviashav nodded and stepped through it, motioning his honor guard to stay back. 

The room was cramped. A Zhodani of equal rank would have been a noble; indeed, many Imperial generals were as well, and would have commanded more space. A general who was a commoner - this would influence his personality and his command decisions, in ways that were predictable to those with the proper training. 

He should have brought the boy, to teach him how much you could learn about an opponent without telepathy. 

He stepped to the middle of the room and turned around slowly, studying its contents. Two swords of strange make, slightly curved with circular hilts and long, straight grips, sheathed in black wooden cases, hung on one wall. On top of a computer terminal built into the adjacent wall was a holograph of a woman and an infant. 

In the corner between them, a strange curvilinear solid-a packing case, perhaps? He went to it and opened it. 

Inside was a large stringed instrument, made of wood, or perhaps plastic. A long metal spike jutted out from the bottom of it. The whole thing would come to about the chin of a sitting man-an Imperial, that is. Zhodani were taller. 

Tlienjpraviashav searched his memory. He had seen something like this before, at a reception between the Consulate and the Imperium. A Solomani instrument - viola? No, violoncello. He muttered the strange, sibilant word under his breath - unlike any Anglic word he had every heard. Already he was beginning to suspect something, was beginning to understand the reasons the room had seemed so strangely familiar. 

Without the ship's computer working, there had been no chance to find any of the crew's names; even quarters onboard the ship were identified by holographic nameplates controlled by the master computer. They had only been able to mark this room as the Marine commander's because a dress uniform of an Imperial brigadier general had been tossed over its bed. 

He leaned closer to the hologram of the woman and child and picked it up. It was a standard static image projector, a rounded dome of transparent crystal with a circular base of chrome. On the underside a dedication had been engraved into the metal, probably with a laser pen, because it was written in a graceful script. He read it slowly, puzzling out the unfamiliar Anglic letters. When he was done, he smiled. A full-blown, predatory grin, far more emotion than he would have allowed himself had anyone else been present. 

"Zirkuniashav," he said. He smiled wolfishly again. His suspicions had been confirmed. 

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